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Words And Rules: The Ingredients of Language [Paperback]

Steven Pinker
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Feb. 28 2011 P.S.
“Deliciously erudite.” —William Safire, New York Times Magazine

“A riveting detective story.” —Chicago Tribune

Steven Pinker, author of the landmark bestsellers The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate—and one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists—and offers an eye-opening explanation of how human beings learn and use language in Words and Rules. First published in 2000, Words and Rules remains one of Pinker’s most provocative and accessible books, illuminating the fascinating relationship between the brain, the mind, and the how language makes us human.

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Human languages are capable of expressing a literally endless number of different ideas. How do we manage it--so effortlessly that we scarcely ever stop to think about it? In Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, a look at the simple concepts that we use to devise works as complex as love sonnets and tax laws, renowned neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker shows us how. The latest linguistic research suggests that each of us stores a limited (though large) number of words and word-parts in memory and manipulates them with a much smaller number of rules to produce every writing and utterance, and Pinker explains every step of the way with engaging good humor.

Pinker's enthusiasm for the subject infects the reader, particularly as he emphasizes the relation between how we communicate and how we think. What does it mean that a small child who has never heard the word wug can tell a researcher that when one wug meets another, there are two wugs? Some rule must be telling the child that English plurals end in -s, which also explains mistakes like mouses. Is our communication linked inextricably with our thinking? Pinker says yes, and it's hard to disagree. Words and Rules is an excellent introduction to and overview of current thinking about language, and will greatly reward the careful reader with new ways of thinking about how we think, talk, and write. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

MIT linguist Pinker builds on his previous successes (How the Mind Works; The Language Instinct) with another book explaining how we learn and deploy word, phrase and utterance. Some linguists (notably Noam Chomsky) have argued that everything in speech comes from hidden, hard-wired rules. Others (notably some computer scientists) claim that we learn language by association, picking up raw data first. Pinker argues that our brains exhibit both kinds of thought, and that we can see them both in English verbs: rule application ("combination") governs regular verbs, memory ("lookup") handles irregulars. The interplay of the two characterizes all language, perhaps all thought. Each of Pinker's 10 chapters takes up a different field of research, but all 10 concern regular and irregular forms of words. Pinker shows what scientists learn from children's speech errors (My brother got sick and pukeded); from survey questions (What do you call more than one wug?); from similar rules in varying languages (English, German and Arapesh); from theoretical models and their failings and from brain disorders like jargon anomia (whose victims use complex sentences, but say things like "nose cone" when they mean "phone call"). Sometimes Pinker explains linguists' current consensus; at other times, he makes a case for his own theoretical school. His previous books have been accused of excessive ambition; here he largely sticks to his own fields. The result, with its crisp prose and neat analogies, makes required reading for anyone interested in cognition and language. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Language comes so naturally to us that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is. Read the first page
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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fruit Flies of Language Feb. 20 2013
By John M. Ford TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Psychologist, linguist, and well-known author Steven Pinker illustrates the processes of human language through an extended discussion of regular and irregular verbs. He skillfully uses our grade-school struggles with the rules and exceptions of English vocabulary to explore the larger realm of human language competence. "Like fruit flies, regular and irregular verbs are small and easy to breed, and they contain, in easily visible form, the machinery that powers larger phenomena in all their glorious complexity."

Pinker's book explores in great detail the two different systems of the brain that produce language. One is regular and rule-like and produces patterns that range from the regular forms of some verbs to the grammatical and organizational regularities of larger chunks of language. The other is idiosyncratic and irregular and stores pieces of our linguistic competence that frustrate linguists and second-graders alike. Our working language is shaped by the interplay between these systems. They both leave their traces in the historical changes in language, similarities between different languages, the creative mistakes children and adults make while learning language, and in the way we invent and reinvent new words.

This book is recommended to anyone who wants to understand how our mind enables us to use language. Don't worry about being trapped into a narrow dissection of verbs--the book simply uses them as an increasingly-familiar theme to explore larger language issues. And don't shrink from an imagined tangle of technical terminology. Pinker's use of language is as deft as his grasp of it. His book is an enjoyable, as well as an informative read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mystery of mind revealed through language Oct. 10 2002
Format:Paperback
This is the first Pinker's book I've read; this may or may not be the best choice. In a flush of serendipity, I started finding references to Dr. Pinker and his works elsewhere; turns out he is considered one of the pivotal figures of modern evolutionary psychology and an archenemy of New Age, feminist and other postmodern, erm, thinkers. That alone could have driven me to his works; but I stumbled upon this book by pure chance, and I am very glad I did.
"Words and rules", as its title suggests, is a less ambitious and more technical book than "The Language Instinct" or "How the Mind Works". It is likely to produce less controversy. It is less than friendly for readers without background in linguistics. There are very few far-reaching conjectures - most of the stories Pinker recounts are solid, scientifically verified data.
However, the consequences which follow are disturbing and unusual. The seemingly trivial question of regular and irregular words in languages, and English irregular verbs in particular, has major repercussions for this other question Dr. Pinker had tackled earlier - how the mind works.
To try to sum it up: in language acquisition and language use, humans employ two systems: memory and structure, lexicon and grammar, words and rules. They are interdependent, but distinctly separate. Their separation in human minds is illustrated by numerous examples from children's speech mistakes, speech impediments in people with various brain injuries, and neurological data, obtained by more or less direct observation of brain activity. All languages depend heavily on words; you cannot use even Esperanto unless you have mastered its basic vocabulary.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Applied linguistics Dec 23 2002
By J. Ott
Format:Hardcover
This book may strike some as mind-blowing and some as dull, depending upon your familiarity and interest in the subject. I, for one, found it perfectly suited to my high interest in language and how the mind works. I recommend browsing the book at a local store to get a feel for it. As academic writing goes, this is hardly dry. Pinker writes lucidly and with great humor, using the idea of regular and irregular verbs (!) to explore diverse topics in modern science. I read it with hunger. A great soft introduction to linguistics, and to the nature of the human brain.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Valuable Popular Linguistics Book Jan. 30 2002
Format:Paperback
Having a 25-year-old degree in linguistics, I was pleased to read this book, refreshing my memory on some matters but for the most part showing that the field continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Focusing on a fairly narrow area ("irregular" verbs and also nouns in English and also other languages), the author presents theories to account for this aspect of language, and the experiments which tend to support or refute those theories. Not surprisingly perhaps, his own theories fare pretty well. Since the focus is somewhat narrow, I would recommend that you first read another of Pinker's language books. (The author would probably enjoy MacDonald's "Lilith" if only to add examples of glide/glode crow/crown to his collection of English irregular verbs!)
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